Award-winning documentary highlights ‘boogie-woogie’ music


The Appalachian Online

Kelsey Hamm

Award-winning director and producer Lilly Kebel, originally from Boone, presented her documentary “Bayou Maharajah” in Belk Library and Information Commons on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.

The film showcases the life, music and drug-filled career of James Booker, a legendary New Orleans pianist, solo artist and sidemen, Kebel said.

“James Booker is most famous in New Orleans among pianists,” Kebel said. “To people who love boogie-woogie music, he is an absolute god. He has a small but fiercely dedicated following. Without this film, his memory might not be preserved.”

The film features interviews with well-known actors and musicians such as Hugh Laurie, Irma Thomas and Dr. John.

Tom Hansell, director of University Documentary Film Services, invited Kebel to Appalachian State University after following the project for years. The film, Hansell said, supports the program’s expedition for increasing community engagement through the use of documentaries.

“Our mission is to support the student and faculty documentary production on campus,” Hansell said. “This is an example of a film that can do that. We have a visiting filmmaker with roots here in Boone, which allows us to engage our music program, documentary program, music lovers and other community members.”

The production won both the Oxford American Prize for Best Southern Film and the Audience Award for Louisiana Feature at the New Orleans Film Festival in 2013, Kebel said. The film was created over a period of three years from January 2010 to its premiere in March 2013.

Local resident and freelance web designer Catherine Mann came to the event to celebrate her love of Brooker and New Orleans.

“You’re talking about a pianist who impressed huge stars like Stevie Ray Vaughn,” Mann said. “He was not nationally famous but he played with the best; he was famous among the famous.”

Kebel began her project while working as a bartender in New Orleans. After listening to Booker’s music and hearing stories about the musician from local community members, she assembled a small team of three people to begin production.

“New Orleans was a great place because it’s very tight-knit,” Kebel said. “When I started asking around for interviews about Booker, no one asked me about my degree or my credentials. If anything, the fact that I was a bartender made everything better.”

Money for the film was raised with the help of three projects on the fundraising site Community members donated money at various points in the project.

Kebel said she hopes to continue to raise money and gain full music rights before distributing the film internationally, through which she believes people will learn about New Orleans and its musical history from the documentary by understanding its cautionary tale about drug use and self-abuse.

Booker died at the age of 43 due to renal failure that was related to his chronic history with heroin and alcohol abuse.

“Locals were concerned about how I was going to portray Booker’s story,” Kebel said. “Was I going to show an addled story of drugs, or a story about one of America’s finest musicians? For me, it was first about the music, and then the aspects of his life that enhanced the musical experience.”

The University Documentary Film Services hosts two to three visiting filmmakers a year, Hansell said. The program also hosts the Blue Mountain Film Festival in the spring to showcase student documentaries.

To learn more about University Documentary services visit

For official information and updates on “Bayou Maharajah,” visit the official documentary website at

Story: Kelsey Hamm, Intern A&E Reporter